By Sheila Johnson
A week or so ago, I participated in a Livestream chat about a new play I’m helping bring to life. Grace, an original musical by a marvelous instrumentalist and composer named Nolan Williams, Jr., is a story about the passing of a small restaurant owner and matriarch of a large black family in Philadelphia. But, even more fundamental, Grace is the story of three things that have long connected (and been essential to) African Americans from coast to coast: family, faith and food.
And while last week’s online discussion was ostensibly about the musical, it really came down to something even more basic; the simple joy that food provides and how the preparation and consumption of a great family meal is as close as many of us will ever get to heaven, here on earth.
Part of the reason for that was, of course, inevitable. Because, you see, one of my partners and fellow ambassadors behind Grace is the amazing Carla Hall, who served as our chat’s host. Carla, as you may know, is one of the most colorful, passionate, and fiercely talented chefs in America. And, believe me, it is next-to impossible to be in the same room (or, frankly, on the same call) with her and not have the discussion, ultimately, turn to the sublime joy of having a tableful of entrees and side dishes in front of you, all prepared with some magical combination of knowhow, love and tradition.
But I also think – and the reason I’m writing this essay today – is that, especially in these dark and uncertain days of COVID 19, for all we continue to love the idea of food, there is something about the isolation we’re going through that has made many of us seek out comfort foods in ways we’ve not done so in ages.
Because these days, it seems, to smell a loaf of bread, or perhaps some corn muffins, baking in the oven, to taste the delicate sweetness of some fresh-whipped butter cream, or to sample the salty goodness of your great-great-grandmother’s favorite soup recipe, is to be transported, if only for a moment, back in time. It is to be whisked away to a day and age long before we found ourselves prisoners without chains, satellites in wildly different orbits, and lonely ships sailing in isolated and remote parts of the same sea.
This coronavirus will one day pass, you can be assured. And we will, likely, one day look back on these times with a mix of regret for having gone through them, and relief for their having passed. But, before they’re gone forever, and before we get back to life as usual, let us consider at least the possibility that these days are actually a blessing from God above.
Just maybe, they’re an opportunity for us to catch our collective breath and take stock of all that is important to us. Maybe they’re a chance for us to reach out to those we love, but no longer see or speak to nearly enough. And who knows? Maybe they represent our one last chance to get back to (and become) the people we once were, or at least the people we’d always hoped to one day be.
And while I’m not saying food is the answer to everything, or that it can make miracles happen. On the same token, it’s not a bad place to start. Because, of all the things we possess in this life that can transport us, body and soul, few have the power of our twin senses of taste and smell.
Food, you see, is a currency. In a world of isolation and loneliness it can be a currency that spends like few others. What’s more, a lovingly prepared meal has the almost spiritual power to build bridges, mend fences, and open hearts.
You may think I’m crazy. And maybe I am. But on the off-chance I’m not, and before too much more time passes and we, once again, hop back onto the carousel, please consider doing what God and this virus have given us chance to do. Pull out that old cookbook your mother left you. Air out those musty old oven mitts. And give those pans of yours a good scrubbing before unleashing them, once again, onto your loved ones.
Cook. Bake. Stir. Fry. Baste. Sautee. Whip. Blend. Puree. Boil. Chop. Toast. Grill. Mix. Mash. Whatever. And who cares if you’re any good. Just do it. And make whatever dish the inner child in you longs for. But do it now, before it’s too late.
Because, at least when it comes to such priceless treasures as food, family and (most of all) time, no one knows this any better than I. These are the good old days.
Eat and live well, my friends. And, God bless.
For more information on GRACE, go to https://gracethemusical.com/